NEWS FROM THE WOODS
By Bob Ketchum
Originally Published March 12, 2013
"The Early Resort Years on Lake Norfork"
Recently I was asked to write an article for the Baxter County Historical Society. They wanted me to recount some memories of my time growing up here as a kid. My childhood was almost a fantasy story, as I grew up in the resort business. Back then, owning a hunting or fishing resort was something special. It was more than a business operation. It was a lifestyle. People spent time at the resort partly for the relaxation of the remote wooded area, and of course for the plentiful hunting and fishing. But more importantly, they came to spend some quality... I dare say "family" time with my folks. Vacationers would arrive as strangers, but leave as cherished friends. We had a lot of return business. A glance at the well-worn guestbooks kept by my mother reveal entries of the same names year after year. Personal notes would be written in the guestbook margins.
Times have sure changed..............
On November 2, 1948, my parents signed a $20,000 note that made them the owner/operators of newly constructed Blackberry Hill Lodge on Lake Norfork. The Lodge was located at the very end of Tracy Ferry Road, and it adjoined the government strip. This property included the main lodge building, 3 duplex cabins, a boat dock, and a barn, all situated on five acres of land.
The date is significant to me as November 1st, 1948 marked my second birthday. I was born in St. Louis but Mom and Dad located to Arkansas as soon as they could, to run a hunting and fishing resort and raise their new baby. My father was a former World Champion Skeet shooter (1936) and avid fishing enthusiast and my mother was a former singing star and radio broadcaster from the Kansas City area.
Norfork Lake was hardly on the maps when we moved to this area. Authorization for construction of the Norfork dam was included as part of the flood control act of June 28, 1938. Construction began in the spring of 1941, and was completed in 1944. It took another couple of years just to fill the lake, covering 22,000 acres with a 550 mile shoreline.
Assuming the US Fish and Wildlife began stocking the lake with game fish immediately after the lake had been filled, the lake was still in its infancy when my family moved here to the Ozarks. I believe Blackburn Resort was about the only other fishing lodge on the lake besides Blackberry Hill in the very early years. In order to drum up business, my father had to go out and attend the various Fishing and Sport Shows held in St. Louis, Chicago, Tulsa, Dallas, and even Miami. Mom used to tell me how he'd be gone for a week, and return with his pants pockets stuffed with money and little strips of paper with names and reservation dates scribbled on them. As business picked up and other local resort owners realized these sport shows were a goldmine, they would sometime car pool and attend some shows together. Together with several other resort owners and fishing service operators plus a small handful of local businessmen and bankers, Dad helped to form the Ozark Playgrounds Association, a very early type of Chamber of Commerce. Dad and another member or two would go to the Sports Shows with materials supplied by the members, set up a small booth, and pass out literature and promotional material representing each member of the association. He was a smooth talker and was extremely knowledgeable about the fishing and hunting habits of our area, so it was fairly easy for him to entice adventurous people to come stay at the lodge on their vacation.
Armed with pictures and post cards of Blackberry Hill, all kept neatly in a photo scrapbook he carried around, he would tell them about our private dock and close proximity of the lake, and show them various magazine articles written about him in current issues of Field and Stream, Sports Afield, and Guns and Ammo Magazines. His former World Champion Skeet Shooting status didn't hurt any. He'd tell men about the plentiful deer, coon, duck, rabbit, squirrel, quail and other game, and show pictures holding a huge string of wild duck or bass. At no extra charge he would act as a guests fishing guide or set them up on a deer hunting expedition in the Ozark wilds. And he made sure to include in his pitch that this was a family resort.
We advertised the "American Plan", which was three meals a day, served up in the lodge's main dining room. Daily maid service was also a big sales tool. We had two ladies that worked for the Lodge. Mom ran the everyday chores of the Lodge and Murphy and Nina followed her direction. Mom kept a strict schedule and running the Lodge was no easy task. They had to have breakfast ready early as the men folk were chomping at the bit to get out on the lake. After breakfast, Dad would take charge of the men (and women who also wanted to go) and head out for a day of fishing or hunting, depending on the season. Nina and Murphy would then clean the cabins and begin the washing chores for up to 6 cabins of guests. If any guests had children with them, it was my time to shine, showing the kids around the grounds; perhaps taking them up to the barn to visit the horses and pigs, or to show them how to play shuffleboard, or even lead them down to our dock for some perch fishing. Any people who elected to stay behind would either just hang out at the resort or would be assigned to me - when I got old enough - and I would accompany them as their personal guide to the various "hot spots" at the time, which were The Norfork and Bull Shoals Dams, the National Fish Hatchery, The Wolf House, Button Mosaics in Lakeview, Top of the Ozarks Tower, Mountain Village 1890, and Bull Shoals Caverns.
I also had chores around the Lodge. Burning the trash was a regular daily chore, as was carrying the buckets of leftover food from meals up to the barn and "slopping the hogs". While up there I would make sure the horses were fed their grain and the animals had plenty of water. The beginning of Fall marked our leaf-burning chores and white-washing the tree trunks. For some reason people thought it looked cool back then, so I had to go to every large tree on the grounds with a bucket of white wash and a broad course brush and paint the trunks from the ground up to about three feet, which coincided with my height handicap. In the summer of 1954, at age 8, I got a job working for Mr. John Taylor at Tracy Boat Dock, for the princely wage of $.50 per day plus candy and soda pop. I watched the office counter when he was working on motors out in the shed, and I assisted people in and out of the stalls when they rented fishing boats and cleaned them upon their return. Another chore - my favorite - was the fish cleaning house. It had a screen door and screened-in windows to keep the flies out. Fishermen would bring in a string of fish and clean them, leaving the unwanted parts in "gut buckets". My job was to clean off the table at the end of the day, collect all the buckets and take a boat (by myself) out around the bend in Tracy Cove to a spot we knew as "Catfish Cove". Every evening before dark I would happily drive out to the cove and dump the gut buckets in the right spot. I got to do all this and made $.50 every day for the privilege.
At the end of a typical day at the resort as the hunters and fishermen returned, they all had enough time to wind down, clean up, and change clothes and then make their way to the dining room for supper. Mom and the two ladies would have everything all set and ready. There were two long tables seating 4-6 persons, and two smaller tables seating four. Twenty guests would be considered the maximum resort capacity. In later years we added three more cabins which increased our capacity and Mom's stress levels. Dad also eventually had an Ester Williams "Living Pool" installed above ground (too many Ozark rocks for a conventional pool) and even expanded the operation by adding two large duplexes ¼-mile up the road in what he called "The Annex". It wasn't long after that the business got to be too much for the both of them and he sold out to get into the real estate business.
After a sumptuous home cooked meal and some special dessert whipped up from my mother's personal dog-eared cook book, the guests would settle back for an evening of conversation and libation. Mom would assist in cleaning off the tables, and while the ladies washed the dishes in the kitchen, she would seat herself at the 9-foot Steinway grand piano in the corner of the dining room and begin a loose two hour concert of piano favorites and songs. The men pulled out their pipes and cigars and the ladies would gently hold cigarettes in their fingers and occasionally take a puff. Little brown bags would appear from out of nowhere. Coffee and glasses of ice would be produced, and mom would command their complete attention as she sang in her best torch singer manner. I would sit in the back bedroom at the floor with the door cracked open and watch her fingers move over the keys and listen to her beautiful voice. After each song, before the applause, you could hear a pin drop. Occasionally someone would wipe a tear from their eyes. Rarely a guest might get tipsy and have to be escorted to their cabin by a spouse, but I don't recall ever seeing an altercation of any kind. It would have been considered rude in those days. Besides, dad could handle any situation that might arise.
It was absolutely the best world to be raised in. When on vacation, people tend to put their troubles to the back of their minds. They are determined to have a good time. I was constantly surrounded by smiling and happy people and families. Returning guests would sometimes bring some toy or board game for me. Over the years we had authors, film makers, Hollywood stars (I have a picture of me sitting in Jeffrey Hunter's lap in front of the Christmas tree) and political figures as guests. They came from all walks of life and all corners of the country. Some guests made it a yearly excursion, planned months in advance. Back in those days people vacationed at resorts not for the amenities but for the personalities of the resort operators. Many of our guests became extended family members. Twenty years after my father's death, my mother even married a former guest of Blackberry Hill from the 40's.
I still have all of the guestbook's from those resort years. Many people signed and left personal notes of thanks in the margins. I also have Mom's scrapbooks from the Lodge. She was a real archiver. I suppose that's where I inherited my own passion for keeping records, photos, and clippings. I am so glad to have these keepsakes and each time I visit them it all comes flooding back to me…… Those wonderful early years in the resort business, tucked away here in the heartland of America.